I remember it like it was yesterday. It was about mid-March when I came up from my basement office, found my wife in the living room and said, “You know, I think this could be bad.”
“Yes, but specifically for events. I mean really bad.” The E3 mobile phone conference had just canceled, and about a week earlier they’d pulled the plug on South By Southwest. Major U.S. sports leagues were falling like dominos. In a follow-up call with someone I’d interviewed for a podcast, they asked if we’d hold off on releasing the episode because “we might not be around next week.” Their multimillion-dollar funding deal was pulled, and 90 percent of their business had canceled. Then, like a lot of people, I watched everything I had on the calendar for 2020 vaporize.
Lockdowns went into place. Microsoft announced they weren’t doing in-person events for at least a year. My wife, who was doing laser education for dental hygienists, was furloughed. If hygienists aren’t working, they don’t need education and support. Conversations started to happen, late at night, after the kids had gone to bed.
“I think I could be happy working at Home Depot,” I said, only kinda-sorta jokingly. I’d be that guy that’s a little too excited to explain the difference between a 3/8ths- and a 1/2-inch pipe coupling. My wife and I joined 20 million of our closest friends by filing for unemployment. I applied for a PPP loan, but my bank was apparently more interested in offering white-glove service to their high-end clients. They literally added, “If you’re calling about the status of your Payroll Protection loan, we have no new information for you at this time,” to their phone menu. They are not my bank anymore.
Preparing for the Pivot
I wasn’t prepared, however, to just sit by and wait for a miracle. Or drown myself in box wine. I’ve never been one for sitting still. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that events were going to move online. Fortunately, I’d already decided Zoom was pretty useful, and had purchased an annual subscription—if only I’d purchased some stock, too!
You probably think it was at that point that I decided to build my Event Leadership Institute course on virtual events? Nope. Actually, I took the almost last $900 in the company coffers and purchased an online education course on digital security. Cyber-security has been my hobby for years. I was going to become a digital security professional. I was going to leave the industry, or at the very least open myself to work outside of it.
Whenever I’m worried I’m going to chicken out of a risky decision, I hold myself accountable by telling people about it. I don’t want to be the guy that’s always got big plans but never follows through on any of them. Saying things publicly has a tendency to make them real for me. So, I started telling people. I was using the P-word before it was cool and then almost immediately uncool. I was going to…pivot.
“I never believed you. Like you were really going to leave,” declared one of my most beloved industry friends, months later. I don’t think she knows how close I actually came.
Of course, I didn’t leave the industry. ELI asked me to put together a six-week course on online event management, which we did and had up and running by May. I constantly liken the experience to being shot out of a cannon and building an airplane. Over 2,500 planners have taken it since then, and it truly is the greatest honor of my career to have been a part of their journey through some of the toughest times our industry has ever seen.
The Moral of the Story
So, what’s the “takeaway”? It could be a sense of urgency about addressing the brain drain our industry is likely to face in the coming months, from planners and suppliers that weren’t turned back at the last minute and went on to other adventures. It could be a lesson about always moving forward, instead of sitting on our hands in doubt, wondering what the future holds. It could even be about just being kind to one another as we come out of this—something that’s very much on my mind these days. People, unfortunately, have a very natural tendency to want to “get back” that which they perceive they’ve lost. Hopefully, we can all do that without doing it at the expense of others.
Perhaps it is a call to keep moving forward. And with a little luck, we’ll run into one another at an industry conference soon.
Because we’re still standing.